Previous Stories in this Series
The South Wind
The Mouths of Crocodiles
High and Dry
Brothers in Arms
A Raven in the Snow
My Noble Friend
Under the Red Sky
Nathan jumped when his beeper went off, and everyone in the office stopped what they were doing. Even Chris stepped out of his workplace to watch as the team medic looked up with eyes as wide as saucers.
It was time.
"She's having 'em," Nathan whispered, looking at the small device in his hand. "She's havin' 'em," he gasped again.
Josiah grabbed his friend's coat and then his arm. "We better go, Brother. Rain isn't goin' to be happy with you if you don't show up."
"We're right behind you," Chris said, motioning for his men to start shutting down for the day. He had no intention of missing the birth of Nathan and Rain's twin boys.
Vin stood back and watched as the normally collected and outgoing medical officer left with Josiah holding his arm. There was a reason Nathan was worried. It had been decided by Rain's doctors that the twins she was carrying were conjoined. The doctors had said that there was less than a 1% chance that the ultra sounds were wrong, but more than likely they weren't. Rain had been devastated at the news. She only wanted to have a healthy child, but it wasn't meant to be.
Nathan had already done the research on separating the twins after they were born...if it would be possible. He spoke with doctors from all over the country on the risks and who the best surgeon for such a procedure would be. Everything was taken care of...or so they thought.
"Buck," Chris said, exiting his office while putting on his coat. "Take all those files down to Kline in the research department..."
"I'll do it," Ezra volunteered. "I'll join you all at the hospital."
"Thanks, Ez," Buck replied, slapping the Southerner on the shoulder.
Chris held back as his men filed into the elevator. "I'll catch up," he said, turning and heading to the office that Ezra and Vin shared. He paused in the doorway, watching as his undercover agent shut down his computer after he'd finished printing up some work. "What's goin' on?" he asked, knowing there was a reason Ezra had volunteered to do Buck's job.
"Nothing," came the characteristic response.
Chris nodded, knowing he wasn't going to get anything more out of him. "I'll see you at the hospital," he said, before turning to leave.
Chris shook his head as he watched Nathan pace back and forth across the linoleum flooring. The heels of his boots hit the tile in methodical timing. He was worried about Rain being in surgery. The medic wanted to go with her, but after passing out in the delivery room the doctors and nurses had said the best place for him was in the waiting area with the rest of his family.
"I wouldn't look so amused," Buck said, sitting down next to his long time friend.
Chris threw him an inquisitive glance: "Why?"
"Because when Adam was born, Sara'd givin' you a black eye and you were trying to decide if beating the shit out of the doctor was the best way to control the situation." Buck laughed, remembering a time that had caused both men to look at their lives with a better outlook.
Chris chuckled and sighed: "She could pack on hell of a punch." He touched his cheekbone, remembering clearly what had happened.
Vin handed both men a cup of hot coffee and took a seat against the wall. "Called the office and Ezra's already left," he said flatly, watching as Nathan took another spin around the room.
"Look," JD said, opening the gift shop bag he held in his grasp. He pulled out a small tee shirt that read: If you think my attitude sticks, you should smell my diaper.
Buck took the child's shirt and laughed. "Got any more?"
JD laughed: "They had a bunch of 'em. I'm goin' to get Ezra one that says: 'Damn Right I'm Good In Bed...I Can Sleep For Days'."
"You goin' to give him that before or after shootin' practice?" Vin asked with a grin.
JD rolled his eyes: "After."
Ezra parked his car and took a deep breath. He grasped the steering wheel, causing his knuckles to turn white. He looked out his windshield at the hospital entrance not seeing a place for people to go when they needed help, but a place of pain and bad memories.
People walked past the car and Ezra looked around, trying to decide how he was going to do this. The cold winter air hit his face as he stepped out. A light snow had covered the pavement and more was soon to follow. As cars drove by, the exhaust from the engines colored the white substance a murky brown, almost black, and it flew up onto the sidewalks without control.
Ezra stepped under the awning and stopped suddenly when the hospital doors opened. Air from within the building breathed out causing his hair to move and his chest to tighten. People moved past him without much thought. They had friends and family to see. Ezra stepped away from the doors and leaned against the brick building. He rested his hands on his knees while he tried to catch his breath.
He couldn't breath.
"Orin," Evie called, wrapping her shawl around her neck and shoulders, "do grab the card as well."
Judge Travis shook his head as he pulled the large stuffed bear and bouquet of white roses from the back seat of their sedan. He stood up in time to see his wife of 41 years smiling at him. "Your card," he said, returning her smile.
"I have no intention of missing this," she said, taking her husband's arm. "I want grandbabies," she chuckled, "and I don't care if they aren't blood related." Her statement caused Orin to chuckle to himself.
"You never fail to amaze me," he said softly, squeezing her hand.
"I should be with her," Nathan muttered, trying to maintain his composure.
"She's going to be fine," Josiah said, leaning back in the hospital chair.
"You want some coffee, Nate?" Vin asked, getting to his feet.
"No!" came the collected response.
"If you're so worried, Nathan, why don't you go to the nurses' station and ask them how things are goin'?" JD said, flipping through a magazine. "Hey!" he said excitedly, "A wireless remote control rat...that'd be great for scaring the shit out of Ez."
"Gi'me that!" Buck snapped, grabbing the magazine. He cleared his throat and started reading, "Wireless remote control rat. Send it dashing across the floor and watch everyone jump. Furry evil-looking rodent scurries forward and runs in circles as its beady little eyes beam with an eerie red light," he laughed, "it's only 20 bucks."
"Ezra'll kill y'all," Vin replied, watching as Nathan took another spin around the room.
"Go ask the nurses," Chris said with a sigh.
"Can't," Nathan muttered. "They chased me out and threatened me the last time."
Chris and Buck chuckled together, Nathan's words bringing back a lot of memories.
"...Agent Standish...Ezra..." Orin continued when he didn't get a response. He reached out and grasped the Southerner's arm. "Ezra..."
The undercover agent stood up abruptly, pushing himself away from the wall, and tried to collect himself. He needed to get his emotions under control.
"You all right, Son?" Evie asked, noticing the beads of sweat on his forehead that he quickly wiped away.
"My apologies...I didn't realize..." He looked toward his car...an escape route.
Orin looked at his agent with a critical eye. He recognized the agitation, shortness of breath, and pale face; all signs of a panic attack. "You sure you're all right?" he asked.
"Fine," Ezra replied quickly, running his fingers through his hair. "I should go," he paused, glancing from the Travises to his car.
"Would you like to walk up with us?" Orin asked.
"No," came the quick retort. Ezra moved away from the hospital doors. "I have some things to finish up at the office," he muttered quickly.
Evie reached out and grasped his arm and gently squeezed. She knew more about the emotions Ezra was feeling than he did. "Go home," she said softly, "We'll call you afterwards."
Ezra searched her eyes and found understanding. "Thank you," he said softly.
"Go home, Ezra," Orin said with a firm voice, "you look like you could lie down." He squeezed his wife's shoulders and guided her toward the hospital doors.
The undercover agent watched them a moment before slowly turning and heading for his car. His hands wouldn't stop shaking, and his chest felt as though it were caving in on him. As soon as he reached his car he slid into the driver's seat and leaned back, trying to get himself collected. Things like this weren't supposed to happen to him.
He was supposed to be in control.
All the time!
Chris looked up when he saw Evelyn and Orin enter the hospital waiting room. It was amusing, seeing the normally stoic judge walk in with a large white teddy bear and a bouquet of flowers. His wife seemed completely content hanging off of his arm.
"Have they arrived yet?" Orin asked.
Chris tilted his head in Nathan's direction and shook his head. "We're still waiting."
"I saw Ezra downstairs and sent him back to the office," the judge said, taking a seat next to the team's leader. Not wanting the others in the room to wonder about their undercover agent, he said, "I needed him to sign some papers." He leaned back while watching Evie make her rounds, checking on her 'boys'. "When you have a moment...I think we should speak," he said softly so only Chris could hear.
The team leader turned worried eyes toward Orin. "Everything all right?" he asked quietly.
"Now's not the time," Travis replied.
Everyone looked up when a nurse entered the room. Her hair had been pulled back and a long gold necklace lined the shape of her smock. "Mr. Jackson," she spoke up, her voice penetrating the suddenly silent room like a roll of thunder.
Nathan stepped forward, trepidation, excitement, and worry filled his mind and body, causing him to become paralyzed.
"How are they?" JD asked, breaking the suddenly quiet void.
The nurse smiled and motioned for Nathan to follow her. He paused a moment, trying to gather his courage and then left, leaving a questioning group in his wake.
"Hope everythin's all right?" Vin said, looking worriedly at the empty doorway.
Nathan paused for a moment when he noticed Rain's doctor come out of her room. The smile on his face told the healer that things must have gone well. The doctor grasped his arm and started walking toward the infant care unit. The glass divider seemed uninviting as Nathan took a step closer.
"Congratulations," Doctor Dumont said quietly, placing a hand on the medic's shoulder. "Your conjoined twins were actually triplets," he chuckled. "I've never seen anything like this in all my years of practice, and I probably won't again. Your daughter," he pointed to the small baby covered with a pink blanket, "she's four pounds two ounces...your boys are each five pounds." He couldn't stop smiling. "As much modern technology as we have, we can still get things wrong..."
Nathan smiled, not hearing the doctor's explanation of how something like this could be missed...how the extra heartbeat was never discovered. He only saw his children, three healthy babies. "Can I hold them?" he asked, barely above a whisper. Tears fell freely down his face and he made no effort to wipe them away.
"We're going to leave them on oxygen for the next three hours and then the nurses and I'll being them into you and Rain," he said confidently. "They're perfect." He smiled. "Rain is in room 315, and I know she'd love to see you."
"Thank you," Nathan said, never taking his eyes off the children lying side by side in their own cribs.
"I'm goin' to look for Nathan," Chris said, getting to his feet and leaving the room quickly.
"I do hope everything's all right," Evie said, moving toward the chair that rested next to her husband.
Orin reached out and clasped her hand. "Everything's going to be fine," he reassured confidently.
Josiah smiled at the couple: "How did you both meet?"
"High school," Evelyn said, with a smile. "We married after Orin got back from Korea."
"How long did you serve, Sir?" Buck asked.
"Two years...and it was long enough," Orin answered honestly.
Evie squeezed her husband's hand knowing more than anyone how hard it had been for him after he came home. "Steven was born two years later," she added for good measure.
Chris found Nathan in front of the large window over-looking the newborns. He paused before gently placing his hand on the medic's shoulder. "Everything all right?" he asked softly, not knowing what to expect.
Nathan looked up and smiled: "Triplets," he muttered, wiping the tears from his eyes, "and they're all perfect."
Chris slapped Nathan's shoulder in congratulations. "Those them?" he asked, stepping closer to the glass.
Nathan nodded: "Two boys and a girl." He smiled, unable to do anything else.
"They're so small," Chris whispered, watching as a nurse stepped up to soothe one of the baby boys after he'd started to cry. "You been to see Rain yet?" he asked.
"Oh, no," Nathan gasped, looking down the hall.
Chris chuckled: "Go," he instructed, "I'll tell the others."
Nathan nodded and gently grasped Chris' shoulder before rushing down the hall.
Chris pressed the palm of his hand against the glass and looked at the three babies. His heart yearned for the wonderful memories that were going to be created in the Jackson household. On some levels there was an unfamiliar jealously eating at his soul. His family was gone...stolen from him in a violent manner. However, there was a happiness that hadn't hit Chris so strong since the birth of his own son. In the matter of a year he received a new family, brothers that allowed him to be more than he ever thought he could be. He smiled when the nurse motioned toward the beds with her finger. Yes, he thought, family.
"So?" Buck asked, getting to his feet when his long time friend entered the waiting area.
"Triplets," Chris answered with a broad grin. "And they're all fine."
"Where are they?" Evie asked getting to her feet, and sounding more like a marine sergeant than the judge's wife.
Orin shook his head and moved to stand next to her.
"Down the hall a ways," Chris answered, and then he moved out of the way as the married couple made their way past him.
"They got names yet?" JD asked, dropping his magazine.
"All in due time," Josiah responded, slapping the kid on the shoulder and then pushing him out of the room.
"Maybe we should call Ezra?" the sharpshooter questioned, looking toward Chris for an answer.
"He'll come when he's ready," Chris responded, following the others.
"Excuse me," a nurse said, stepping into the hospital room that was filled with family, "Mr. Larabee?"
Chris turned his attention from Rain and the child she held to the nurse. "Yeah," he said sternly, glancing at Evie and Orin. He couldn't help but smile when the older couple doted on the tiny infant encased safely in Evie's arms.
"There's a Lieutenant Mathews outside..."
Chris nodded and quickly followed her out of the room. He didn't want to disturb the others. He could only chuckle to himself when his agents, men who were known for their strength and quick tempers, became gentler than day old kittens in the presence of those three babies.
"Dave," Chris said, shaking the officer's hand with a firm grip.
"Don't mean to intrude here, Chris," he said, and then handed a manila envelope to his friend. "Three days ago my men and I investigated a burglary of an abandoned apartment on 4th Street..." he paused, waiting until Chris opened the package and looked through its contents.
Newspaper clippings, photographs, and a locket fell from the envelope. Chris shook his head, not believing what he was seeing. His family had been captured on pictures that he'd never seen before. Images of his wife and son...just days before their deaths.
"Where did you find these?"
"That's just a small sample of what was discovered in the apartment," Dave replied, not knowing what his friend and colleague was going through. "I did some research and the residence was owned by a Curtis Armstrong...former Senator Ella Gains' husband..."
Chris locked eyes with Dave: "What else did you find?"
"We found circumstantial evidence linking Gains to the deaths of your wife and son."
Chris leaned against the wall and ran his hands over his face. "We had two college classes together," he said in disbelief.
"We haven't been able to locate Ella..."
"You won't," Chris snapped, standing up straight. "She testified in the Harrison investigation in return for access into the witness protection program...she's gone, and you won't find her."
"She's responsible for two deaths, Chris...the Bureau can't protect a murderer."
"They can...and they will." Chris shoved the locket into the pocket of his pants.
Dave nodded: "There's more at the apartment. Do you want to come down and take a look?"
"Not today," he sighed, moving toward the room where his men were. He turned suddenly and watched as the police lieutenant turned and headed for the elevator doors. "Dave!"
"Yeah," the dark haired officer turned.
"Thank you," Chris said, before disappearing through the doorway.
"What are you goin' to name 'em?" Vin asked, gently touching the top of the boy's head that Buck held.
"The oldest is Jabar Aaron, and then Tiv Owen, and..." Nathan motioned to his daughter, "Tara Neema." He touched her tiny head gently; making sure the pink cap was securely in place. He and Rain had chosen names with their heritage and culture in mind.
"They are perfect, Nathan," Evie said, wiping a stray tear from her cheek.
Rain smiled and kissed Tiv's forehead. Tears had stained her cheeks and her eyes were now swollen. Nathan sat on the edge of the bed with an arm draped across her shoulders. He watched as his son suckled his mother's breast. He hadn't noticed JD or Vin avert their eyes momentarily, only to return them and watch in a new light the gentleness of mothers, protectiveness of fathers, and the wonders of birth.
Ezra entered his apartment and immediately freed himself of his jacket, letting it fall to the floor, and then he grabbed a beer out of his refrigerator. His hands still shook and the muscles around his throat still clenched...but at least now he could breathe. He'd never experienced anything like that before, and he hoped he never would again. He still wasn't sure what had happened...or if he did, he wasn't allowing himself to accept it.
He looked out the sliding glass door and watched as the ground was slowly being covered in yet another layer of snow. The white flakes fell from the sky without destination or care. The trees looked hollow without their leaves, and the stems of dried flowers and plants poked up through the heavy substance. Ezra leaned against the wall and sipped from the green bottle.
The apartment was still bare, however, there were a few personal items indicating that someone lived there. The TV that Buck and JD had purchased Ezra for Christmas rested on a small stand against the far wall. A hand made quilt lay across the back of his antique rocker; crafted for him by Nettie Wells and Evie Travis. And then there was the box of Steven Segal movies that Vin had acquired for him. The sharpshooter had no taste whatsoever.
Ezra ran his fingers through his chestnut hair and looked back toward his apartment...his home, and sighed. It had been over a year, and though it had been the hardest of his life, it had also been the best. He'd solved a piece of his past that had almost destroyed him...physically and by reputation. But somehow he'd managed to be rescued in the nick of time by six men, a judge, and the off chance that Colorado needed an ATF team. Who would have guessed? He felt for the first time as though he belonged...and it felt good. Oh sure, he still kept himself closed off, still hid himself from others, and he found it difficult to speak openly about things that were close to his heart...but that was natural. All of them shared those hindrances on some levels. Josiah still drank himself into oblivion, blaming himself for the world's problems. Vin chose to escape into the wilderness, going places only he knew about...only to return to work refreshed and ready for the new day. Even Buck hid his pain in his exploits with his lady friends. They were a team, but most importantly, they were men who were individuals on top of that, but they were able to put that aside and work together as brothers.
Ezra picked up his phone and dialed Chris' number, needing to know how Rain and Nathan were doing. He'd send flowers, and something for the children when he had a better idea of how things were going.
"Larabee," Chris' voice echoed sternly over his cell phone.
"Mr. Larabee," Ezra started, showing no hint of emotion other than the concern for his friends, "might I ask how things are occurring with the Jackson family?"
"Triplets," Chris answered with a smile in his tone. "And they're all healthy."
Ezra smiled and nodded, as though Chris could see.
"You all right?" His voice became suddenly serious.
The question caused the normally stoic undercover agent to replace his emotion filled face with a strong jaw and impenetrable gaze. "Fine," came the quipped answer. "I'd like to send some flowers..."
"She's in room 315," Chris answered the unasked question. "Why don't you come on up...I know they'd like to see you."
There was a long pause on the line and Ezra tried to come up with something logical to say...but he couldn't. "I'll see what I can do," he said flatly, emotionless.
It dawned on Chris what was happening and as a result he sighed and ran his fingers through his hair. "I need some help with an issue that came up today..." he sighed, "I want you to get to the office early in the mornin'."
"What's this concern?" Ezra asked wearily.
"I'll tell you in the mornin'." Chris grabbed the locket out of his pocket and sighed. "Nathan's goin' to have his hands full for the next week or so." There was a smile in his voice. "Make that 18 years."
"I'll be there," Ezra responded, the tension in his voice was gone.
The Southerner hung up the phone and looked toward the window. He didn't care why Chris had changed his mind so suddenly...just that he had.
Vin held Tiv as though the infant were going to break. Tiny features peaked up past the soft blue blanket. Slimy bubbles popped out of his mouth and Vin quickly wiped them away with the edge of the blanket. He couldn't get over how small the baby was. It felt strange holding him; so small, delicate, more fragile than glass.
"He looks like you, Nate," JD said, gently touching Tiv's cheek. "I think he's got your ears."
Rain chuckled and wiped Jabar's forehead with gentle fingers. "Both boys look like their father," she said softly, looking lovingly at her son. "They've got his eyes."
Evie carefully rocked back and forth in the stationary chair she sat in. Tara cooed and spit up while safely secured in the older woman's arms. "They are beautiful," she sighed, remembering a time not so long ago when she'd held her grandson...and even her own son. She felt Orin touch her shoulder in a comforting grip.
No parent should ever outlive a child.
Everyone looked up when Chris entered the room. He nodded to Orin who stood up and headed out the door...the team leader quickly followed.
Chris ran his fingers through his hair and looked hard down the sterile white hall. He heard Orin clear his throat, a signal for him to say what needed to be said. "Police Lieutenant Mathews came in to see me a while ago..." he started but paused, "He found evidence linking Ella Gains to the murder of my wife and son."
Orin nodded and rubbed his chin. "You okay?" he asked first.
"Yeah," Chris answered flatly. He thought he was.
Orin didn't believe him but he continued anyway, "I'll make some phone calls, Chris, but I can't guarantee anything will come of it. At this point in time she's under the protection of the US Government and within their reach." He looked hard at his agent. "Do you think she'll come for you?"
Chris looked up and shook his head: "I doubt it."
"Okay then," Travis nodded. "Take a few days off, Chris, you and your men have been working nonstop since the Harrison investigation. Take some time, Nathan's going to need it, and I'm sure the rest of you do as well."
"Thank you, Sir," Chris nodded in agreement. "You said earlier that you wanted to speak with me about somethin'?"
Orin looked hard at his agent, trying to decide if now was the best time to speak with him. "Evie and I saw Ezra down stairs."
Chris nodded, he knew that already.
Travis scratched his chin: "Has Ezra seen anyone...professionally?"
"A therapist, outside or within the bureau?"
"We all have..." Chris volunteered, "It's mandatory for shootings or traumas?" He didn't understand. "What's goin' on?"
"Keep an eye on your agent, Chris," Orin said, slapping Larabee gently on the shoulder. "He's not handling things as well as he'd like everyone to believe..." he made a motion toward the hospital room door, "...I'd better get Evie before she decides it's time to call an adoption agency..." he continued to mutter as he entered the room.
The apartment was large and well designed. It was easy to believe that Ella Gains had lived here from time to time. Paintings hung from the walls, most were now covered with graffiti. Leather chairs and sofas had been slashed with knives and a pile of books lay on the living room floor...someone had tried to burn them.
Dave stepped out of the back room and stood in the doorway. "The room's back here," he motioned toward Chris and Ezra who stood stunned at the mess around them.
The door had been bolted from two different positions. It took a lot for the burglars to enter. Chris stood back; almost afraid to look inside...she'd killed his family. Ezra tapped Chris' shoulder and he quickly entered the small room and then gasped at what he saw.
Photographs looking like wallpaper had been glued to every available space in the room...all of them were of him. Images of his college days, his time in the military, pictures of him and Buck at a few bars...pictures of him and his family...Sara and Adam's faces had been cut out. Chris' stomach turned as he looked at his hell.
Chris walked up to the desk that rested against the wall and looked at the items that had been collected over the years. A black and red tie, a cheep gold watch, a toothbrush...things he'd once used, but had long forgotten about. He turned suddenly and left the room, leaving Dave and Ezra.
Dave shook his head, not having realized how hard this was going to be for Chris. "I found this taped to the underside of the top drawer just before you got here." He handed a small notebook to Ezra. "I'm not sure what's in it, but I figured I'd give it to you instead of entering it into evidence." He knew what he was doing was wrong, but he owed it to his friend.
Ezra nodded and took the book.
"What would you like me to do with...?" Dave motioned toward the room.
"Destroy it," Ezra said flatly, quickly leaving to find Chris.
Chris leaned against the brick building, trying to get himself collected. He wanted to hurt someone, something...share with them the pain he was feeling. She'd killed his wife...his son. She'd taken from him the people that he'd held most dear...his family.
Ezra stepped up beside Chris, the notebook held tightly in his grasp. "You all right?" he asked, knowing the team leader wasn't.
Chris clenched his fists and stood up. "I didn't even think she'd remember me," he said, looking hard at his agent. "We dated...just a few times." He started pacing.
"Obviously she wasn't in her right mind," Ezra tried to explain. He didn't expect strong hands to grab his shirt and jacket and force him up against the wall.
"She killed my family, Ezra...this isn't a fuckin' game!"
"I never said it was," the Southerner replied calmly, raising his hands to show Chris that he wasn't going to fight.
Larabee shoved Ezra up against the wall again before letting him go. "Fuck this!" he swore, moving toward his truck.
"She hired someone to kill you family...we can at least find him!" Ezra yelled after him, standing in the middle of the sidewalk.
Chris stopped mid-stride and turned to look at his agent. Chris' jaw clenched and he turned his eyes toward the chilly sky. He didn't' know if he could do this...after so long. It still hurt to think about them...that they died because of him.
Ezra watched, unsure of his next step. This was a job better suited for Vin or Buck, not himself. He wasn't familiar with the kind of pain Chris was in...the undercover agent didn't know what it was like to have his life torn from his chest in the most brutal manner. He'd never loved anyone so much.
"I can't fail again," Chris whispered, looking toward his truck and then down the road. "I can't fail them again."
"So don't," Ezra answered sternly. "You know who had them killed...now, find the killer."
Two sets of green eyes locked on each other, and for a moment, a slight nod of understanding passed between the two men. Chris looked into the distance; afraid he'd given away too much without saying anything.
"Let me help," Ezra pleaded. "I owe you that much."
"You don't owe me anything," the team leader replied, slowly motioning toward his truck. "I knew her less that seven months!" he snapped, angry with himself, not the man walking behind him.
Ezra closed his coat and stopped mid-stride in the center of the street. "If she went through all this trouble to 'keep an eye on you' what's to keep her from coming after you?"
Chris stopped and turned toward his agent. A million things ran through his mind: Sara, Adam, and Harrison. "She killed my family, Ezra."
"I don't know what you're goin' through, Chris. But I can tell you that you can't let her win...not at this." He stepped forward and took Larabee's keys. "It's been four years...it's time they were at peace."
Chris sighed and watched as Ezra unlocked the truck and quickly slipped inside. He started the engine and turned up the heater while waiting patiently for Chris. The tall blonde ran his fingers through his hair and looked toward his agent...at least someone was thinking clearly.
"You ever goin' to unpack, Ezra?" Vin asked, stepping into the apartment with Buck and JD on his heels.
The undercover agent shook his head and sat out a tray of beers on the coffee table.
"Cletus Fowler's rap sheet is fifty miles long," JD said sarcastically, tossing Fowler's file onto the table. He grabbed a beer and seated himself on the sofa, wishing he'd brought a bag of chips. "He's been charged for extortion, larceny, harassment, and fraud. All charges had been dropped or thrown out of court due to insufficient evidence..."
"Who's his attorney?" Buck asked, moving toward the phone to call for a pizza.
"James Lightfoot," JD answered.
"Shit," Buck swore, "James 'I'll do anything for money' Lightfoot's a dick."
Ezra shook his head and took the file from the tabletop. "Presumably he doesn't answer to that moniker."
Vin picked up the notebook that Lieutenant Mathews had given Ezra and started flipping through the pages. "Hate to say this," he sighed, "but the information in here ain't worth the paper it's written on." He tossed the notebook on the table and leaned back in his seat.
"Vin's right," JD said, shaking his head. "It should have been taken into evidence."
"And," Buck started, "just because Fowler's name is recorded in it doesn't link him directly to the crime...it's all circumstantial."
"So we find direct evidence linking Fowler to the murders," Ezra said simply.
"Sure, Ez, he'll just let us in and let us take a look around his place," Buck commented, popping the top off his beer. The lid bounced and clanged against the kitchen counter before falling to the floor. He didn't bother to reach down and pick it up.
"It's happened before," the Southerner replied, getting to his feet and grabbing the bottle cap from Buck's beer. He tossed the small item into the garbage and looked toward the door as Chris entered the room, followed closely by Nathan.
"How are the babies, Doc?" JD asked with a grin.
Nathan turned tired eyes toward the kid and shook his head. "We were ready for two..." he sighed tiredly, "not three."
Vin chuckled and handed the medic a beer. "So'd Rain kick you out?"
"No," Nathan responded. "Yes..." he corrected, sitting down in the rocking chair. His eyes were darker than usual, not enough sleep. He took long sip from the beer he'd been handed and then yawned.
Chris shook his head: "Go get some sleep while you can," he ordered.
"Unlike Mistah Wilmington's apartment, Mistah Jackson, my bed sheets are clean," Ezra said, leaning against the bar.
"Hell, can't do that..."
"Go," Chris ordered with more authority. "Get some sleep, Nathan. Speaking from experienceand that was with only one childyou're going to need it."
Nathan chuckled, more out of being exhausted than humor. "Thanks," he sat up and slowly got to his feet. He moved toward the bedroom and quickly disappeared.
"Damn, he looks wasted," Vin commented, looking back toward the files resting on the table.
"He will be for sometime," Chris added, grabbing a chair. He sat down and started looking over the information everyone had gathered.
"Where's Josiah?" JD asked.
"Sent him over to help Rain out while Nathan gets some sleep," Chris answered.
"So there was an ulterior motive for meeting here?" Ezra questioned with a dimpled grin.
The team leader nodded and grabbed a beer. "Nettie's over there as well, makin' sure Rain's doin' okay as well." He looked at the papers on the table and took a deep breath. "What've we got?"
"The judge is okay with this?" Buck asked, just to be sure.
"As long as it doesn't interfere with the case he's got planned for us next week," Chris said seriously, he looked across the room to the faces of his men and nodded, they were ready.
"Cletus Fowler is livin' in Eaton," Buck started, "So it keeps him within our jurisdiction... However, most of his crimes aren't worthy of the Bureau's status..."
"But we can share evidence with the state police and the sheriff's office in Eaton... We may even be able to attain evidence through them if we agree to give them credit for breaking the case against Fowler." Ezra remained standing and looked hard at the men around the room.
"I just want the SOB caught," Chris said. "I want to hear reasonable solutions in regards to nailing him, and I want it done within a realistic amount of time. We've got a big case coming up..."
"Travis gave us some time off..." Vin started.
"But if he finds out we're workin' on a case he's goin' to have a conniption fit," Buck added.
"He'd be right," Chris said. "I can't ask you all to work on this." He sighed and ran his fingers through his blonde hair. He noted for the first time in days that he needed to get it cut. He knew it would only be a matter of time before Travis subtly handed him the manual on dress codes. Ezra could get away with it...he was an undercover agent...but the rest of them...no.
"Sure as hell will be better than sittin' on my ass for the next week trying to put my jeep back together," Vin muttered, angry about his vehicle's idea in regards reliability.
"Besides," Buck started, "can't let this body go to waste in a new town." He stood up straight and puffed out his chest and shoulders, making himself look like a very thin 'Arnold'.
JD laughed and threw his baseball hat at the ladies man. "You're so full of shit."
Buck picked up his beer bottle and went to hold it like a barbell and as a result started pouring beer onto the floor. "Shit," he muttered, trying to stop the beer from hitting the floor with his hand, only causing it to splatter.
Vin snickered as Ezra grabbed a dishtowel. Chris shook his head, not at all surprised by Buck's antics.
"It's amazing any of us can walk...much less function like normal human beings," JD joked, picking up some papers from the table. He ducked when the dishtowel was thrown at him.
"Speak for yourself," Ezra replied.
"How do you want to handle Fowler?" Vin asked, getting everyone's attention back on task.
"I want him picked up for the murder of my wife and son...no mistakes, no hitches...just an open and shut case." Chris leaned back in his seat, his face hardened with determination.
"So we need to find direct evidence...or a confession," Buck replied, finishing the last of his beer.
"A confession would be preferable," Ezra said, retaking his position next to the wall.
"A confession would get him convicted," Chris remarked coldly.
Rain held her daughter to her chest while Nathan re-diapered his son Jabar. Both boys lie side-by-side kicking out with tiny feet. Slobber bubbled at their mouths as the boys looked confused around the room, their eyes not focusing on anything quite yet. The medic couldn't get over how tiny they were. Their hands could hardly grasp one of his fingers. He smiled, looking into the eyes of his eldest son, seeing glimpses of his father. Band-Aids still covered their navels. Gently, Nathan slipped his son into a set of warm jumpers.
Tiv screamed out, letting everyone know that he was hungry. The largest of the three babies, Nathan quietly hoped that Tiv would one day play football like his father had. Maybe Jabar could be a quarterback...
"Education first," Rain spoke softly, knowing what her partner was thinking.
"And just what do you think our children are going to be when they grow up?" Nathan asked, his voice touched with humor.
"I don't care," Rain responded, "as long as they're happy." She smiled and looked at Nathan, seeing so much of him in the boys he was caring for. "Mary and Nettie have offered to help me while you're gone..."
"I'm not going...Chris and the others can handle the situation." There was a hint of trepidation in his voice.
"Casey's agreed to stay in the spare room," Rain said softly, brushing the hair back from Tara's forehead. "I'll have plenty of help while you're away."
"We're not your only family, Nathan. And I know how you'll be should something happen to one of them."
"What if somethin' happens to you or the babies?" Nathan quickly and efficiently traded Rain, Jabar for Tara.
Rain rocked back in her chair and bottle-fed her son. "You worry too much...always have." She kissed her son's head and gently rubbed his cheek. She looked up and met Nathan's eyes. "Just plan on changing a lot of diapers when you get back." She smiled and chuckled softly.
Nathan met her smile and nodded. He propped Tara and Tiv up onto his lap, amazed that they both fit. He could see in Tara's eyes her mother's Seminole heritage, more so than the boys. How was he ever going to tell her no? He could see her coming to him as a teenager wanting to date a certain boy...God that was going to be hard. Watching her hug a boy...watching her grow up...watching her leave. Her brothers were going to be protective of her...Nathan just knew that. Those boys would grow up big and strong...ask their father to help them build a tree house. Maybe even torment JD and Buck with their 'girl' questions.
"What are you grinning about?" Rain asked.
"I think we should set a date," Nathan responded.
Rain nodded: "Okay."
Nathan's teeth shown bright against his dark skin as his smile increased in size. He was ready to be a husband...and Rain was ready to be his wife.
Chris looked up when his men started piling out of their vehicles. Between JD's Extera and Josiah's run down Suburban, the team was ready for the trip to Eaton. With munchies purchased, cell phones charged, and earplugs inserted, bodies piled into seats.
JD, Buck, and Vin decided to ride in the Extera...the others were unwilling to travel with all the noise and junk food. The rest rode with Josiah. While the big man drove, Nathan slept, and Chris and Ezra went over the files they had. They'd find Sara and Adam's killer...they'd close this part of Chris' past.
Or at least try.
Eaton was a small town surrounded by farms. The normally lush green fields filled with alfalfa, wheat, and rapeseed, were now covered with snow. JD slowed his vehicle and pulled into a motel. It wasn't fancy...just functional. The sign glowed red, reading VACANCY. Snow had been plowed out of the driveway and parking places, and the sidewalks had been shoveled free of the slick substance.
A man moved around the office, handling papers and magazines. The cleaning service had already made their way through the rooms and were now storing their carts. Vin jumped out of the Extera and grabbed some extra supplies. The young woman standing beside the cart only smiled and was eager to help him with whatever he needed. She watched him move back toward the others and smiled and ducked her head bashfully.
Buck chuckled: "You know, Vin," he wrapped an arm around the younger man's shoulders, "for a sharpshooter...you don't see shit." Buck looked toward the woman who quickly averted her eyes when she noticed the men looking at her.
"No offence, Buck...but she's barley eighteen," Vin replied, knowing the girl was just too young. He wasn't blind and to say the thought hadn't entered his mind would be a blatant lie, but he wasn't a fool either.
Buck bit the knuckle on his finger and sighed...eighteen.
"Come on, Buck," JD said, slapping his friend on the shoulder.
Chris shook his head, wishing at times he were younger, while at the same time being grateful that he was older and knew the things that came with age and experience. He watched a moment as Ezra and Nathan headed for the office, looking for rooms, while the others gathered around the pop machines looking for their caffeine and sugar fixes. He held the files in his hand knowing they contained the information he needed, and with Sarah's help, he' get Cletus Fowler convicted.
"Ready?" Vin asked, stepping up along side his friend and comrade.
Chris nodded and headed inside to get a room.
Dicky O'Shaes was the only eatery in the small town that captured the element of the 'less than reputable'. If parolees had a meeting place, this was it. Buck and Vin entered the establishment, looking slightly out of place but not enough to draw attention. An old pool table rested near the back wall, it was being held up with cement blocks. Bar stools of every shape and size were scattered around the floor. Florescent lights hung above the bar, highlighting a picture of a woman's breasts.
Buck pulled out a barstool and seated himself, resting his elbows on the bar. Vin did the same, all the while trying to memorize faces in the crowd.
"Beer," Buck said, watching the bartender's movements.
When the older man stepped forward with the beer in hand, Buck slid a photograph across the bar top. "You know him?" he asked softly. "Goes by the name of Cletus Fowler?"
"Cops ain't welcome here, boy," came the snide remark. The bartender kept the glass of beer that Buck had ordered and turned around, heading back toward the far counter.
"Tell you what..." Buck said, raising his voice so everyone could hear, "...why don't you come over here and talk to us, so we don't have to call in the FDA." He smiled, knowing the response he'd get.
Micky pushed the beer glass in front of Buck and looked half heartedly at the image. "I've seen 'im a few times."
"How often?" Vin pushed, resting his elbows on the counter top.
The bartender sighed and looked hesitantly around the room. "Every Friday night...about eight."
"Good," Buck said, getting to his feet. "He pay in cash or does he have a tab?"
"Cash," came the quick answer.
"You sure?" Vin asked, leaning slightly over the bar so he was closer to Micky's ear. "Would hate to see the FDA, ATF, and the IRS come to your door."
Micky looked at both men hard for a moment and shook his head. "You the FBI...Federal Marshals?"
"Does it matter?" Buck replied.
Micky shrugged and tossed a small receipt pad onto the counter top. "I need that when you're through." He headed back to some of his other customers.
Buck retook his seat at the bar and started flipping through the thin sheets of paper. He ripped the one page out after finding what he needed and then he and Vin quickly left the bar.
Chris entered the sheriff's department with Josiah. Both men stopped at the main desk, their imposing looks caused the middle-aged attendant to sit up straighter and take notice. He cleared his throat and softly asked, "What can I do for you?"
"We need to see Sheriff Whitehouse," Chris said flatly, he wanted results and expected them.
"And you are?" came the innocent remark that earned him two ATF badges. "Okay," he replied kindly. "Why don't you have a seat and I'll call him in."
Chris nodded and headed toward a table that was covered with newspapers and a box of day old donuts. He took a seat and watched as Josiah did the same, grabbing a page of the newspaper just to see what the area of Eaten was like.
"Can I help you?" a woman wearing a deputy's uniform asked. She stood strong, her graying hair pulled back into a braid, and though she wore makeup, it was minimal.
"We're here to see Sheriff Whitehouse," Chris answered, getting to his feet. He showed his badge and Josiah did the same.
"Well," she sighed, "he had to fly to Santa Fe about an hour ago...I won't expect him back for more than a week." She motioned for them to follow her into her office. "Is there anything I can do?" She slipped her coat off and hung it on the back of her chair before taking a seat. "I'm Nancy Harowitz." She raised her eyebrows and looked at the two men.
Chris crossed his arms in front of his chest and leaned against the wall. "Are you familiar with Cletus Fowler?"
Nancy sighed and leaned back in her seat. "Mark and I've been after that sonofabitch for a long time...but...he's cleanunless the ATF has something on him?" There was a hint of hopefulness in her voice.
Chris looked the woman over and Josiah watched him intently. "He's wanted for murder..."
"But?" she asked, knowing there was a problem.
Chris took a seat next to Josiah. "At the moment we don't have direct evidence linking him to the crime"
"And you want me and the rest of my officers to look over a few things for the next few days." She smiled as she spoke knowing what he was asking.
Chris raised his eyebrows in question and waited for a response.
"What's in it for Eaton's Sheriff Department?"
"Full credit for bringing a murderer to justice."
"Why are you here, Agent Larabee?" Nancy leaned forward and rested her elbows on the desk.
Josiah cleared his throat: "Are you aware of the Harrison investigation?"
"Who isn't?" Nancy replied. "What's Fowler got to do with it?"
"He's notat least directly," Chris said flatly. "Senator Gains, as you know, turned state's evidence in return for protection regarding evidence she brought forward to bring all members involved with 'Harrison' to an end..."
"She hired Fowler to kill my family."
"So this is about revengea personal vendetta of sorts?"
"If that were the case I'd go after Gains," Chris replied.
"Why haven't you?"
"Like I said," Chris sighed, "she's protected."
Nancy leaned back in her seat and sighed. "I could get fired for something like this."
"Or promoted," Josiah spoke up.
Nancy smiled and nodded. "What do you need?"
The phone company had been stationed between a fast food restaurant and a library. JD and Nathan had managed to call in a few favors and in return received a copy of Fowler's cell phone and his home phone bill. Nathan talked with the receptionist while JD accessed the local and long distance phone numbers.
Nathan watched the employees, trying to find those that would be most willing to talk, and within minutes he'd started up a conversation. He learned more that way...listening to people, learning about their community and their neighbors. He watched JD from the corner of his eye, waiting for the kid to let him know when he was ready.
It was a small town, not a lot of action, but with that came a lot of talk...and everybody liked to talk. While farmers gathered at the feed and hardware store, their wives talked while getting their hair done at Christie's. Businessmen and the like learned the latest news while standing in line at the bank and grocery store...nothing was ever left unsaid, whether it was true or not.
JD coughed into his hand, indicating to Nathan that he was ready to go, and the ever-polite medic smiled at the young women he'd been conversing with and tuned to leave. He followed JD out of the building and he slipped into the passenger side of the truck, anxious to learn what the kid had discovered.
The road was slick in spots as black ice glistened under the distant sun's rays. "I found a few numbers that didn't add up as far as who he was calling...most were on his cell phone. He canceled his long distance for his home phone...probably just carries his mobile with him all over."
"Like the rest of us," Nathan surmised.
"Hell, Nate...If this guy killed Chris' family...he's killed more. He's probably a pro."
"That scare you, JD?" Nathan asked out of concern.
Reluctantly, the kid nodded. "Yeah...it does."
The property wasn't fancy or elaborate in any way. A singlewide trailer rested alone in a useless field. Snow covered weeds, stones, and car parts littered what could only be assumed was the front yard. An old shed rested to the right, the door was hanging off its top hinge, and the only window had been broken out. Smoke slipped out a pipe from the top of the roof of the home...snaking upward toward the gray sky.
Josiah was the first to step forward, letting Ezra absorb the atmosphere. This wasn't the kind of place someone lived in by choice... Josiah knocked on the front door, and the windows rattled and wood creaked. He could hear movement within the feeble structure, and he took a step back not wanting to overcrowd the inhabitants.
Slowly, the front door was pulled open, exposing bright orange shag carpet that was on the verge of coming up from the flooring. The older woman grasped the doorknob and placed a hand on her hip. Her housecoat was stained with brown and yellow spots and a cigarette hung from her tar-stained lips. "Wha'do ya want?" she asked roughly.
Josiah smiled politely: "I'm looking for Cletus Fowler."
"What'fer?" she asked, looking past Josiah toward the younger man behind him.
"Personal business," Josiah responded.
"Well...he ain't here," she snapped. "And when ya do find 'im...tell 'im he owes me two months rentthe little bastard!"
"How long's it been since you saw him last."
"Are ya stupid or just deaf?" The woman looked at him with disgust. "I already told ya...I ain't seen' 'im in two months." She stood up straight and pulled the cigarette from her mouth then tossed it into the snow.
"Thank you," Josiah said, turning to leave.
"I want my money!" she yelled and slammed her door shut.
Josiah shook his head as he quickly slipped into the driver's seat of his Suburban. Ezra slammed the passenger side door shut and quickly fastened his seatbelt.
"If Chris EVER wants to send us to check out a suspicious address again..." Josiah paused, "...I'm going to kick his ass!"
Ezra snickered and wisely kept his mouth shut.
"That woman was ugly enough to make me question my sexual orientation." Josiah pushed his vehicle into hear and gunned the gas pedal.
"You mean that facetiously of course?" Ezra asked, his eyebrows rose in concern.
Josiah laughed and shook his head. "Don't worry, Brother...you're not my type."
"...I don't know what aspect of this investigation you want to pursue...if any at all," Deputy Harowitz said, crossing her arms over her chest. However much she liked the idea of putting Fowler behind bars thrilled her, she had taken an oath to uphold the law...and that included members of the law enforcement community.
"He's here...it's just a matter of finding him," Chris snapped, brutally forcing his fingers through his hair.
"I'm not going to lose my job over this...I have a family to worry aboutand if Fowler's half of what he's rumored to beI'm not sure I want any thing to do with this."
"You said you'd help," Buck spoke up, resting his arms on the back of the chair.
"I said I'd turn a blind eye," Nancy corrected, looking at the seven desperate agents. "Ol' Lady McPherson is a mean old bitch who hates folks that interfere with her business. If Fowler was renting a room from her, he was doin' it to hide something"
"Like what?" Nathan interrupted.
"Property more 'an likely."
"Everyone in town seems to know him, but nobody knows where he lives," Vin said, leaning against the far wall. His skeptical demeanor could match Ezra's.
"He keeps a post office box here in town so he can maintain his residency for tax purposes. When he's in town he'll rent a room at the hotel where you boys are stayin'...or at the McPherson's place."
"I highly doubt anyone would stay there willingly," Ezra commented.
"You would if you were runnin' from somthin'," Buck surmised, looking out the office window.
Ezra shook his head, not agreeing.
"What if we stake out the place...just keep an eye on it in case he shows up," JD said.
"Who's got the time for that?" Nathan commented. He took a deep breath and shook his head...wishing they had some kind of a lead...and wishing he were home with his family.
Chris stood up abruptly: "How long will you keep your blind eye?" He looked hard at the deputy.
"For as long as I can," she answered.
"Let's go," Chris ordered his men. He watched them get to their feet and head outside. He grabbed the doorknob and paused before closing the door. "Whatever happens...you'll keep your job."
"That's not all I'm worried about."
Chris nodded and closed the door behind him after he left the room.
Everyone sat in Chris' hotel room, waiting for his decision. He stood at the window, trying to think about the questions his men wanted to ask. He didn't feel right in asking them for this...they were risking their lives for his revenge.
But damn if he didn't want it.
He could smell Fowler...he was close enough that Chris could feel the murder's breath on the back of his neck. Chris clenched his fists and his skin tore open where his fingernails bit at his skin.
"I can check his banking transactions... If he's using any credit cards or checks"
"Do it," Chris responded, cutting JD off.
The kid stood up and immediately headed to his room for his computer. Buck watched Chris' agitated movements and understood on some level what he was thinking and feeling. Vin leaned against the wall with his arms crossed in front of his chest. He knew as well what was happening and what was being asked. Nathan had left...needing to call Rain and find out how his family was faring. Josiah rested in one of the chairs at the table, contemplating the choice he was in the process of making. Ezra sat on the bed with his back up against the headboard. His cards flew through his fingers, but his eyes gave away his concern.
Chris took a deep breath and cleared his throat. "If we don't find him by tomorrow I want the rest of you to get back to Denver"
"We ain't leavin', Larabee," Vin responded.
"I can't ask you to stay."
"Then don't," Buck quipped.
Ezra sighed and shook his head. "What makes you think you're the only hunter here?"
"Chris knows there's seven 'hunters', Ezra," Buck answered in disbelief.
Ezra rolled his eyes.
"You think he's watching me," Chris surmised, looking toward his undercover agent.
"That is usually how these games work." Ezra kicked his feet over the edge of the bed and shoved his cards into his pocket.
Vin stepped forward and closed the window blinds. "Ain't been too many folks that'ave seen Ezra." He shrugged. "What if he needs to hire a hit-man?"
"Lady McPherson's seen him," Josiah said. "And it isn't as though she wouldn't recognize him again."
"She wouldn't...not if he disguised himself," Vin responded, keeping his position by the wall.
"I don't like the sound of this," Ezra commented, raising an eyebrow.
"Vin's right," Buck spoke up. "If we send someone in here of the same element." He thought about the bar he and the sharpshooter had entered earlier.
"I don't know," Chris sighed, and then ran his fingers through his hair. "I don't want anyone at risk."
"As appealing as it sounds...I don't relish the idea of performing undercover without taking the appropriate procedures," Ezra said, getting to his feet.
Chris and Vin both frowned and looked hard at the undercover agent.
"That's not like you," Chris said.
Ezra returned Chris' gaze: "It is now."
"So we keep askin' questions," Vin said, shrugging his shoulders.
A soft knock at the door caused Chris to reach forward and open it, allowing JD inside. He took a deep breath and handed the team leader some papers. "According to these statements, he made an ATM withdrawal for 300 dollars thirty miles from herenot 24 hours ago."
"So he's close," Buck commented.
Chris grabbed his jacket. "Let him find me." He opened the door and headed out into the cold night air, not at all affected by the bitter chill.
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